By Martin Kerin
IT is no secret to anyone who knows me, or to anyone who follows Thurrock politics, that I am a Remainer. Not only did I vote Remain in 2016 – I actually campaigned, on the streets, for the official ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign.
As recently as September last year, I campaigned for a confirmatory referendum on a deal/No Deal vs Remain option. Nothing between 2016 and now has changed my mind that our national interest is best served by being a member of the European Union. Indeed, I believe that we will re-join within my lifetime – there was a 41-year gap between the 1975 and 2016 referendums, so I should (just!) be around to see it happen…
All this being said, we are now, as nation, caught between Boris Johnson’s deal (officially titled the ‘EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement’) or a catastrophic No Deal. Remaining is, for this generation at least, no longer an option. Mr Johnson has described his deal as a ‘very good deal.’ It is certainly a very good deal for the EU, but not for us. The UK capitulation on tariffs for goods/services is the most obvious example of where Mr Johnson has fallen drastically short in the negotiations.
A tariff-free agreement on goods, but not services is excellent news for the EU, but terrible for the UK. Last year, the UK ran a surplus of £18 billion in financial and other services with the EU, but a deficit of £97 billion in goods. Even the chance to use state aid to massively re-orientate the UK economy has been squandered, too, with the concession that the UK will have to ensure that its subsidy regime respects key principles set out in the Agreement.
It is no surprise that it ended this way. The only reason that the original Withdrawal Agreement was agreed in 2019 was because Mr Johnson agreed to a customs border in the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain. This, remember, is something he had originally said that no Prime Minister could ever agree to. Following this, the EU negotiating team knew that all they had to do was sit and wait for the British negotiating team to give in. Even Mr Johnson’s posturing on fishing ended with the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations accusing the Prime Minster of having ‘bottled’ it.
So, we are where we are. This week, parliamentarians will debate and vote on the deal. The spotlight has now turned to the response of the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. Mr Starmer has indicated that he is whipping his MPs to support the deal. In my opinion, this is the best decision available. I believe that he summed up the position we are in as a country perfectly when he described the deal as ‘thin’ and said: “A better deal could have been negotiated. But I accept that option has now gone.” With this reality in mind, it really is Boris Johnson’s ‘thin’ deal vs the unthinkable No Deal. The national interest is best served by avoiding a No Deal. Therefore, the best decision available is to grudgingly accept and vote for the deal on offer.
Despite being a Remainer, I have many close family and friends who are Leavers. Although I disagree with them, I do understand the motivations that drove them to vote Leave in 2016 and, in many cases, to continue to back the Leave cause right up to now. I equally understand why millions of people up and down the country in ‘left-behind’ communities saw Brexit as a once in a generation chance to strike back at a political system that has repeatedly failed and over-looked them. Unfortunately, this EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement does nothing to address the massive de-industrialisation and brutal austerity which has ravaged the communities who voted to Leave in such high numbers. This is because it was, is and always has been policy choices in Westminster, not Brussels, which has inflicted and continues to inflict the damage. At least now, though, the bogeyman in Brussels cannot be blamed for the failings of home-grown politicians.
After wrestling with this question myself, I believe that Keir Starmer is making the right decision to back this deal. It is a tough decision, but making tough decisions is what leadership is all about. There are enough MPs who are Brextremist No Dealers or unreconciled Remainers to vote against the deal and potentially plunge us into the calamitous waters of No Deal either by design or accident. By voting for the deal, Labour are unambiguously guaranteeing that it will pass and stave off a potential disaster. After the half decade we’ve had of arguing, posturing, unicorn-chasing and downright dishonesty, the deal on offer is the least worst option – perhaps this is what should have been written on the side of the big red bus…